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  • Monday Musings: Examining Frank Ntilikina’s Offseason Development

Monday Musings: Examining Frank Ntilikina’s Offseason Development

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
New York’s first-round pick from last year is in the news for working out with head coach David Fizdale. What do contributors Charlie Zegers and Bryan Gibberman think about Ntilikina’s growth and ability on the hardwood?

Charlie: In what will almost certainly go down as the least-surprising transaction of the year, Ron Baker picked up his player option and will be back with the Knicks next season.

I mean… of course he did. He’s almost certainly overpaid, relative to his production to date and potential, and he’s coming off an injury that sidelined him for most of last season. The real surprise came last year, when he was offered roughly $9 million over two seasons—with the second season a player option—and a no-trade clause to re-sign with the Knicks.

Baker’s contract mirrors Tim Hardaway’s, but on a much smaller scale. In both cases, the Knicks appeared to “outbid themselves,” paying major premiums for players that probably wouldn’t have made nearly as much from other teams.

And that’s sort of troubling. Because though it’s hard to say exactly who did what in the Knicks front office last season, we do know that both signings happened after Phil Jackson received the boot.

On the other hand, the summer 2017 move that looks most appealing at this point is the one Phil can claim—the selection of Frank Ntilikina. Sure, Frank has taken some heat—initially for being “picked for the Triangle” and not being Dennis Smith Jr. (or more recently, for not being Donovan Mitchell.)

Now, I’m not bringing this up as a defense of Phil Jackson—you know what they say about blind squirrels. But I am sort of wondering, what’s your take on last summer’s acquisitions? Do the Hardaway Jr. and Baker contracts leave you worried about the Mills/Perry regime? And what’s next in Frank Ntilikina’s development?

Bryan

I’m in the minority here but I don’t mind the Timmy or Baker contracts, even if they are overpays. The overpay aspect goes more towards Baker, to me, than Hardaway, but I think Baker has value as an off-the-bench role player. He plays defense, he generates player and ball movement on offense, and he has high basketball I.Q.

I believe the Hardaway deal, however, ends up being fine if his three-point shooting normalizes and this past season was an outlier. His game has become more well-rounded, and there are even aspects of his defense that have become useful (he’s excellent in transition but not great in half-court sets.)

Onto what I really want to discuss in Frank.

My expectation is that as he learns and begins to understand how to use his skills and physical gifts, Ntilikina will become a significantly improved offensive player in year two.

I don’t think Frank’s issues as a rookie were about talent—he was a 19-year-old kid adjusting to playing against physically mature adults and he didn’t have the confidence or know-how to use what he had available to him. If you pierce through his game with nuance, you grasp that Frank’s offensive game actually showed a lot to be excited about. He’s never going to match Dennis Smith Jr.’s explosive ability to get into the lane, but Frank doesn’t have to.

When you have Frank’s size and length, there are other ways for him to bend a defense, even though I do think people underestimate his dribble-drive skills.

One thing that’s very apparent with Frank is that he’s an extremely high I.Q. player who already knows how to use his handle and size at a higher level than I could have expected someone of his age. Ntilikina utilizes his handle to create passing angles and his body to generate space from defenders. It’s truly advanced stuff, it just needs to happen with more consistency.

The “Frank’s not a point guard” angle just doesn’t make sense if you really pay attention to him. His vision is elite, and he passes with precision. Just sift through some of Frank’s assists and look at how he throws open players like a quality quarterback hitting his wide receivers.

Where Frank needs to display growth, however, is using his length and size to attack the rim. The way he shields a defender, using his backside to open up room, can also be done around the basket (more than just his backside, but the concept of using his body to help him finish). He also can gather and attack the basket from farther away than I’m guessing he currently knows. This stuff is gonna take time to come together, but experimenting with these tools this upcoming season is a must.

I’d also like to see Frank show the ability to hit jumpers when he’s not in a perfect situation. It felt like he struggled to shoot whenever his context wasn’t perfect but did show some glimpses of being able to hit with a contorted body. Frank is going to be able to get off his jumper pretty much whenever he wants because of his size—the question is how good he can get at these types of shots.

Frank’s upside is much higher than he’s given credit. My guess is he will be obviously better than the other guards once training camp and preseason games start, making Fizdale’s decision-making process very easy.

Charlie

Timmy’s deal may look better after this offseason—there will be teams with money to spend and a relatively weak class of free agents. That said (and I made this point when it happened) they basically gave him a deal that assumed he’d continue to improve. If he does, OK. But there’s really no way for him to outperform the contract. And good teams in salary cap leagues have to have players that outperform their contracts, too.

I think you like Baker more than I do. To me he’s a decent “effort” guy. But he’s, what, the fifth guard in the rotation at this point? The player option and no-trade clause are indefensible.

But I really like Ntilikina.

His shot doesn’t worry me so much. He’s certainly not the first point guard to come into the league without much confidence in his jumper. As long as he can develop enough of a shot to make defenders think a little, he’ll be fine.

And did you hear that he’s grown another inch since last summer?

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